Friday, April 08, 2016


Elementary Latin

Edmund Wilson (1895-1972), A Piece of My Mind: Reflections at Sixty (New York: Farrar, Straus and Cudahy, 1956), pp. 144-145:
Start him off, then, in his Fourth Form year, and set him to reading and memorizing some story or poem in Latin in the second or third week. The grammar should come with the reading. It is a good deal more efficacious to have the student know a poem by heart—even though he will still for some time be dim about the precise meaning of every word and unable to construe it correctly—than to learn to recite by rote the uses of the subjunctive or the prepositions that take the ablative. This is the way we learn our own language or pick up a foreign language: we get it in its organic form, which is the only form, really, in which it exists. The ideal thing, no doubt, would be to conduct the classes in Latin, but of this perhaps few teachers are capable. I once knew a professor at Yale who decided to adopt this policy with a class in "advanced" Latin. In dismissing the class, he said simply, "Nunc discedere licet." Nobody stirred from his seat. It took a week for them all to grasp it. But, failing colloquial Latin, you must make them commit to memory something that will give them the hang of the language. I suggest some Latin version of Aesop. The schoolboys of the Middle Ages cut their teeth on the fables, and there was a version in use in New England in the early years of the nineteenth century. The question is which version to use: Phaedrus will hardly do. He is sophisticated, much too difficult. The history of the fables in Latin is long and complicated. They were always being turned from verse into prose, and from prose into verse again. A prose version would be better for our purpose, and the one mentioned above might do ("Select Fables of Aesop, with an English Translation more literal than any yet extant, designed for the readier instruction of Beginners in the Latin tongue, by H. Clarke, Teacher of the Latin Language. The first Walpole Edition from a copy of the latest Edition printed in London. Walpole, New Hampshire, 1802.") By the time the student is done with these, he will at least have learned the names of the animals instead of the vocabulary of military tactics. Now go on to simple poems. I recommend beginning with Catullus' four-lines, "Otium, Catulle, tibi, molestum est." Besides inculcating a moral which might perhaps appeal to an ambitious boy, this will fix in the memory the vocative form, the words for city and king, and the fact that the endings in m are nasals which must be elided. The same poet's "Odi et amo" should leave a sharp little impression and make memorable the verb for to hate—the student ought already to know amo—and the verb for not to know. The next number might be Lesbia's sparrow—a much admired poem, which the teen-ager may find insipid. He will hardly find "Vivamus, mea Lesbia," so, and he will learn from it, in a context that brings them out, such important words as basium and semel. He will also get a weighty gerundive used in a reverberant way. These little poems seem quite spontaneous; Catullus here speaks in a natural voice—almost colloquial republican Latin, before the Augustan grand manner has turned the emotions to marble.

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